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Celebrating Cultural Diversity

“Celebrating Diversity – Past and Present” was the theme for a recent all-employee training and that’s just what the day offered. Over 80 NRCS Texas employees assembled at the AgriLife Extension Center in Stephenville for an interactive day of learning. Employee’s participation in the diversity training counted toward their AgLearn diversity training requirements.

Laura Broyles, NRCS Assistant State for Field Operations, welcomed the group stating, “We are excited to offer this cultural diversity training to you in person instead of online,” she said. “Today you will hear firsthand from historians, genealogy experts and minority landowners we work with. It will be a great opportunity for some interactive discussions and learning.”

Four members of the Army Color Guard traveled from Fort Hood to post the colors. Tribal Elder and Spiritual Leader Ted Herrera offered a blessing over the group before the training started.

The event was primarily planned by American Indian/Alaskan Native Emphasis Program Manager (AI/ANEPM) Melissa Sturdivant. Sturdivant, an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, is a soil conservationist for NRCS in Goldthwaite.

“I just really wanted to bring some tribal, Texas and natural resource history to you all,” Sturdivant said, addressing her peers. “I wanted you to be able to see and hear from these speakers first hand, and for you to be able to touch and feel the artifacts we have on display. “

“We can all have different backgrounds, but when it comes down to conserving and honoring natural resources, I think you will find we all have so much in common,” she added.

Jo Ann Herrera, a member of the Alamo Chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, spoke to the group about fostering the appreciation of Texas history in order to bolster community pride and inspire each person to their own individual achievement. She talked about her genealogy research that has led her to find ancestors that came to Texas in the late 1700s.

“You would be surprised what you would find in your family tree if you researched it far back enough,” she told the NRCS employees. “I thought I was Hispanic and Native American, but I am also Spanish, French and Polish. And you would also be surprised how many of us are related if you go back far enough. “

“In my research I found that Ted (husband) and I are actually related through our great, great, great grandparents,” she added, laughing. “Culture and history are important keys to who each of us are. I encourage each of you to embrace that thought and do some of your own research.”

Jo Ann’s husband, Ted, gave the group a presentation on bison and their importance to indigenous people. He talked about the evolution of bison, their habitats and their importance to prairie ecosystems before their population’s demise. He also spoke about his Native American heritage, tribal practices and the bison’s importance to their culture.

Erin Kimbrough, program coordinator for AgriLife’s BattleGround to Breaking Ground visited with the group about ways to bridge the gap with our services to those who served in the military. NRCS regularly participates in BattleGround to Breaking Ground workshops and Erin encouraged NRCS staff with new ways to address these veteran soldiers, many of whom have suffered debilitating injuries in the line of duty.

“Getting involved in agriculture is often a therapeutic outlet for these veterans returning from duty,” she explained. “The more we can help them find expertise and program assistance, the greater their chances of success on their own farm.”

During the lunch break, the group was able to tour the exhibits and artifacts on display, from Native American articles such as drums, flutes, and clothing to buffalo skulls, hides and hunting weapons. NRCS Zone 5 Biologist Ricky Linex had several plants on display that have cultural significance, including prickly ash and elderberry plants.

As an additional way to celebrate diversity, employees were given the opportunity to bring desserts that represented different cultures. The group feasted on Cherokee huckleberry bread, empanadas, pan dulce, kolaches and others. As a special treat, Sturdivant spoke in her native Choctaw language and played several Choctaw songs on her wooden “uskala” – the Choctaw word for flute.

Falls County ranchers Billy and Marilynn Wright addressed the group in the afternoon, speaking about their long-time partnership with NRCS.

“I found out about NRCS when I had my farm in Missouri,” Billy explained. “The NRCS office there was so helpful to come out and tell me about my grasses, what I needed to fertilize with, how to manage weeds, my livestock grazing and so much more. It was unbelievably helpful.”

“Then when we moved to Marlin, Texas we contacted the NRCS office there and we were so pleased to find out they were just as helpful here as they had been in Missouri,” he said. “We have had Brian Bailey (District Conservationist) come out and give us so many good ideas for our place. We have participated in EQIP through the socially disadvantage funds on several occasions and it has just helped us so much. NRCS has truly been such a blessing to us and we thank you for what you do.”

The meeting was wrapped up with a traditional tribal circle ceremony with Elder Herrera lighting a bundle of white sage in an abalone shell. Sturdivant shared that white sage is a smudging herb for purification in Native American traditions to purify the mind, body and spirit before praying. He then walked around to each person in the circle and offered blessings to our Creator over each person as he fanned the cleansing smoke over them with pheasant feathers, which are a Native American symbol of protection.

“I hope we each walk away from this training with a deeper appreciation for cultural diversity and differences,” Broyles told the group in conclusion.

Celebrating Cultural Diversity, Dee Ann Littlefield, NRCS Public Affairs Specialist (2018, October)